Pedagogical Autobiography: FruFra


One day about 4 years into teaching I walked out of my room and into the math office, which was actually carved out of a corner of my room. The teacher working there turned to me and asked, what is this frufra stuff that you do? I looked at him funny and asked what he meant. What he meant is exemplified by the video that I attached here. 

I did not at the time know the answer. Every day I start by introducing myself and my subject. I then ask for any questions comment thoughts or ripe tomatoes. During this time anything, well almost anything, goes. The rules of frufra are:
  1. You may ask any question, give any comment, or make public any thoughts you would like.
  2. Frufra is done when it ceases to be a whole group discussion. 
  3. There is a third rule, but it is a secret.
At the beginning of the year it is short. Some days it is short. Other days it lasts for a whole class period. Everyone is equal, and students quickly learn what topics will inspire more conversations and which ones less. I was struck by Vivian Gussin Paley's Article in Harvard Educational Review titled On Listening to What Children Say when she says, "Whenever discussion touched on fantasy, fairness, or friendship, participation zoomed upward." (page 124) This is very true. We all like to listen to stories that have their basis in reality. Students need this as well. They learn from their peers and what grabs attention.

I get a lot of questions about physics. This is important because I teach physics. I get a lot of questions about science. I get questions about life and school and family and myself. I get stories about brothers and sisters and dogs. About sickness and health, movies and sports. Johanna Kuyvenhoven says in her book In the Presence of Each Other, "Letting go of the conversation meant unpredictability." (Pg 74) But that is the key. Being open to what is on the group's mind each day is essential to gaining a places of openness that Parker J. Palmer says in To Know As We Are Known is the key to a place for truth seeking. "We must remember that we not only seek truth but that truth seeks us as well." If you are not open to this how can you know what it is?

I think that frufra also keeps me as a teacher informed and able to stay on top of the rest of life. It keeps me balanced to know what is happening around me in the world as my fellow learners are seeing it. Palmer talks about the importance of knowing what is happening in other disciplines as part of the spiritual journey of a teacher. "One discipline is the simple practice of studying in fields outside one's own." (page 114) What better guide to the world that my students live in than the students themselves? While I realize this is not a discipline, it goes towards my ability to translate between the culture of students and the culture of physics.

I remember vividly 5 years ago when a girl asked a question at the top of her voice, "Mr. Peterson, do you have a girlfriend?" The room was silent. I smiled and she began to freak out. I had been dating for about 2 months the woman who would be come my wife. They asked all kinds of questions and the class was done. Everyone wanted to know all about Rebecca. I told them about my hope for the future and my excitement about the gifts God provided for me. I shared with them the story of my life, and they could think of their own lives in terms of the gifts of God. Kuyvenhoven correctly says, "All problem solving abilities, from physics and math to social studies and environmental science, depend on such senses of possibility." (Pg 147) The hope and the promise I could display in the story of my life would show up that year in the problem solving and inquiry that my students would do. Stories help us to imagine the possibilities. Stories come out of frufra.

Stories, transmission of culture, learning from each other, becoming equal learners, creating an open community. Frufra ties together the people in the room to become learners seeking truth.


Pedagogical Autobiography: Traditions

When you work at a summer camp the most important thing to find out is what the unwritten rules are. This is probably true anywhere, but camps make their money by carefully enforcing not rules, but traditions. This is not optional. Kids love structure and similarity. When the camp that I work at in the summer built new buildings we had girls who were glad they were in the old cabins, because to sleep in the new ones would have ruined their last year at camp. 

The grace of God allowed me to to have a professor in college who let this line slide out in a class one day. He said he memorized his first paragraph of his lesson, his opener, for every class he taught for his first 5 years of teaching. I thought that was a heroic effort, and one that I could never replicate. I have to admit that I am never that sure of what is going to happen during a class period. But I thought of a solution. On the first day I taught I walked in and I said, "Hello, my name is Mr. Peterson and I will be your Earth Science teacher today." No one looked at me all that funny. This is quite common for the first day. Every once in a while on the first day someone will ask, "Are you our teacher tomorrow too?" Most often I just get the blank stares and smiles that come with the first day. 

When it starts to get interesting is day two. I say the same thing. And again. It takes about two weeks before a student raises their hand and asks, "why?" Why do you do that. I explain that I am striving to meet the goals of a college professor that taught me to have my opener memorized. I explained that it would make them know that they were in a different class than they had just been in, and that I was there to help. Some days, when I am in a hurry, I forget. Usually, in one or two minutes a student will raise their hand and say, "who are you and what are you trying to teach us?" I smile, introduce myself and know that community is being built. 

Another piece of my tradition is the cookie song. It started out rather simple. I would sing the cookie song if there were cookies mentioned anywhere in the third period announcements. Since we have hot lunch and there was dessert with hot lunch this would happen quite regularly, may be twice a week. At the end of the song the students will join for the last part at the top of their lungs. It take 30 seconds, but does so much for the rest of the period. Soon I had to come up with how do we let other hours sing the song. Now my rule is: if you bring homemade cookies for everyone in the class, I sing, they yell, and sometimes I dance. 

You wonder what this can do for a classroom? What does it add to the community other than unhealthy eating habits? I did not really know either until I was at a conference and a sub was in my classroom.  There were cookies in the announcements that day. A student stood up in the class and sang my part of the song. The class yelled. The sub gave them detentions. The next day I was still gone and there were cookies in the announcements. The student sang. The class yelled. The sub gave up. I had a long talk on Monday with the students about respect. They argued that they were respecting the community, I argued that they were not respecting the greater community. I am not sure who was right. I do know I was humbled by their loyalty to the class. 

I have several other traditions, surrounding everything from how and when we take tests, to put downs (I have a zero tolerance tradition and traditional penalties that I apply to myself as well), to assignments, to birthdays, to question and answer time. I also have school wide traditions that involve stories that I tell in chapel and how I lead when asked at faculty events. Each of these thing make people feel safe where they are and comfortable with the environment they are in.

The research on this backs me up. In her book on storytelling in the classroom called, In the Presence of Each Other by Johanna Kuyvenhoven, she says, "Learning depends a lot on being comfortable and happy in the room together." (Pg 88) I felt at home in the classroom described in the book with it daily rhythm of what would happen. The traditions of the room allowed for several different students from all walks of life and cultures to find their voices. Establishing who we are as a group, different from the rest of the world allows everyone, not just kids, the freedom to be who they are in that context. In the book the students have to be ready for their story time and Kuvenhoven established that early on they were not, but as the traditions became a part of who they were as a community, "As the weeks piled up behind us, children were almost always ready." (Pg 68) There was a sense that they became ready to learn as they became part of the learning. This is true as well in my classroom. Students are ready to learn when the traditions are established. They are ready to give to the purpose of the room once ground rules are established and they know where they are. I think that having some positive rules reminds them of a standard of behavior that is expected in the classroom, a standard of learning that is expected as well.

Parker J Palmer in his book To Know As We Are Known argues for the same thing. In the book he claims that, "A learning space has three major characteristics, three essential dimensions: openness, boundaries, and an air of hospitality." (page 71) The traditions I establish meet two of the goals, and lead directly in my experience to the remaining one. He says, "The teacher who wants to create an open learning space must define and defend its boundaries with care." (page 72) The boundaries are established by the traditions that I set in my classroom. The best part of setting them as traditions is that I need not be the only one who defends the boundaries. In the video attached to this post, listen closely as the cookie song comes. The students yell, "Dance!" I had not started by dancing, but the tradition would not be complete without it. They demand that the boarder is defended. Sometimes another teacher will walk into my room for some reason or another and they will hear students asking for other students to change their behavior or be more careful with equipment. I praise them for being a self disciplining classroom. They are defending the boarders of their learning. 

Palmer's third pillar of an open classroom is the idea of hospitality, "a place where every stranger and every strange utterance is met with welcome." (page 74) I love that description, and I would like to think that I, by defending the boarders with traditions, make a spot for everyone to be a part. I establish traditions for this very effort. I tell them how we are to treat new adults that enter the room. I establish traditions for students not from our hour. There are traditions for students who are late to class and students who have to leave early. We work at including everyone who comes through the physics barriers of our room and make them a part of the community within. 

There are times when the traditions are not followed, and there are dangers to having too well established traditions. They can get  in they way. But as we watch for their harmful effects, they open the classroom itself to the possibility of openness, learning and truth seeking, unlike any classroom I have had before where I did not work hard of this. I am not sure exactly how I got here, but I do feel free to share more about who I am with my classes as we work out our lives and traditions together.

Pedagogical Autobiography: Inquiry

Last spring I sat down at an open house for a graduate of the school. Near me was a parent who I recognized enough to know that I had his children in the past, but how long ago and what his children's names were I could not recall. I introduced myself and he said his name. We talked for a little while about what his kids were up to and how they were doing. Then he said to me, "you know we still use those speakers my son made in class, they sound great."

At the end of each year in physics I have a month and a half of open ended inquiry time. Independent research projects is what I call it. Students have to go and research some area of physics and come up with a product that represents their learning. I leave a lot of room for the students, but do have about 15 projects that have frames about them so that students are not left totally to their own devices. Constraints actually inspire creativity in many situations, so I do not feel bad giving students a topic or concept to explore, and they can always choose the last one, which is make your own project.

Inquiry is scary in this scenario, and it is on the surface doomed to fail. Seniors with six weeks of school left and all the pomp, circumstance and social traditions that distract them, are destined to not want to work hard. Yet some how when I give them room to fail they succeed to greater heights, for the most part. Every other year or so a student simply does nothing and fails. That is nothing compared to all the successes. A single student who wastes 6 weeks of 45 minutes, compared to lives changed, is a small price to pay.

When I say lives changed I mean it. When as a teacher you take a step of faith and allow kids to fail some will. Others will soar. I remember the day that a student had me sign a note saying he could miss class on Friday because of his physics project. I asked, "why are you going to be gone for a whole day?" He replied that he had set up a day to meet with archaeologists at the Field Museum in Chicago. I quickly signed the note. He is a geologist today, putting his physics skill to work on rocks around the world.

One day a student went to shadow an engineer. She had shared with me her struggle with where to go to school and what to do once she graduated. She explained that she felt she really wanted to go to a Christian college but that there were none near her house and she needed to live at home for financial reasons. I told her to pray about it, and that God had never denied me money when I needed it to do God's will. She came back from the job shadow and was so excited. While she was there the engineer had showed her a scholarship that he knew had no applicants that she qualified for. He also had a internship position in the lab he worked in that paid twice what she was making and he hired her. The money made up more than enough for her to go to the college of her dreams. It also confirmed for her that she was following the path that God had in store for her.

Two of my most popular projects started with a pair of students coming up after class and daring to ask if they could make up their own project. My only requirement for project like this is that there be a final product and that they produce a repeatable procedure for their project.  Therefore, if I like the project others can do it again. Now literally hundreds of students have done projects that other students had invented and I had nothing to do with the forming of those projects. Usually these projects are more involved than I would ever require them to on their own. All I had to do is set up and environment where students are allowed to develop intelligence by asking questions and having new, wonderful ideas about the material they gather to answer their questions. In the Having of Wonderful Ideas Duckworth says, "Knowing enough about things is one prerequisite for wonderful ideas." I try to set up the projects so that there is just enough to get the student started with the big questions of their topic and then they can move from there to the new wonderful ideas that they will find.

I also see this and being a direct implementation of the idea of teaching that Palmer presents in To Know As We Are Know. He says, "To teach is to create a space in which obedience to truth is practiced." I am not truth. I have some insight into truth, but make no claim to being truth. When I set my students free to explore they come up with so much more about the world and truth, than I could ever show them. When I give them to a subject and let the subject show them the way, they learn more than I could ever ask them to learn. In Griffith's book In The Borderlands of Teaching and Learning, he says, "We should help guide the ship, but not be its sole captain." (pg 40)  This is not the way I was taught or even taught to teach. He compares teaching to jazz and describes it this way, "The interaction between teachers and learners are experiments in fluidity with both trying to constuct meaning and forge understanding. The path is not linear, but is can be found."

Schools are not set up for this type of learning at all. We need to remedy this.  Here is a selection of links to projects that my students have done over the years.

Pedagogical Autobiography: Collaborative Problem Solving

The picture is from physics night. It was taken at 9:30 PM on a Monday night at school in the physics room. There is Monday Night Football on the screens and there are clusters of students working together around the room. They are working on a program called CAPA, a web based assignment tool.

The story of differentiated problem solving starts with two people, neither of whom necessarily thought they were advancing a relational way of teaching. A professor at Hope asked me if I wanted to piggy back, for free, on their web based problem system. I said I was interested and started picking problems. I had a computer at every lab station, something that our principal had funded, and thought that I could figure out a way of selling this type of assignment to the students. When I went to the principal to talk through it with him, he demanded that I have one night a week where the room was open for students to come and use the computers, in case they did not have computers at home. So we settled on this plan. I would give homework on Tuesday, a whole weeks worth. Friday would be question and answer day in class. Monday night the computer lab would be open for students to come in and work if they wanted to, with the problems being due at 11:30 that night. This has been my basic schedule in physics for 10 years. I fill the week with other work, like discovery labs and discussions, and the homework and reading happens parallel to the course in the evenings.

So far none of this seems all that radical. I cannot over emphasize how much it has changed my teaching. It took no time to realize what gold the Monday evenings were. We were all learning together. Since everyone has different problems, that the computer keeps track of for me, I can have some comfort in knowing that students who are working together are talking about physics, not copying problems. I learned that I could assign a lot less problems but produce more conversation about the root of the problems. The Monday nights were really a club. A club in the sense of Frank Smith's clubs in The Book of Learning and Forgetting where on page 11 he defines clubs as, "communities of influential people." Without really trying, I had brought together a group of people who we interested in solving physics problems.

And if you walk into the room on Monday nights, you will find that is what it sounds like. A physics club. And I say that because a physics class sounds different, and to some extent has to sound different. On Monday nights I almost always have something going on the television. If not, there is music. There are students arguing about physics concepts and how to apply them. There are students helping each other or asking me questions. There are also students talking football, baseball, choir, and math. There is a lot of socializing. There is a lot of food some years. There is some anxiety because they cannot find their place in the room or the discussion that will benefit them the most. There are students that meet in the hall because they need to be away from the noise.

On top of all of this there are also a variety of student needs that are addressed. Some have the normal physics questions. Even those are broken down into two categories. Some are questions about problem solving, numbers equations and math. Other students gather to discuss and argue how the concepts of physics apply to real world questions that I pose to them each week based on the same material. Other students come because they are done with the problems and would like to help. They are members of the same club who are there to help. This is integral to Smith's idea, because club members, "don't teach you; they help you." (page 18) Finally there is an interesting group of students who come to do other work. Sometimes it is brothers and sisters who have to come, but end up enjoying themselves and finding a room full of people willing to help them. Sometimes it is peers who just would rather study in the presence of the activity of learning.

Collaborative problem solving allows my class to become a club. A social physics learning club. Few things have been a more powerful force in my teaching career.

Pedagogical Autobiography: Learners

Please Listen to the story first.

This story is a moment of crisis in my career, and I had not even stood in front of my own classroom. The summer after graduating and before teaching, I had been hired as the tripping director at Camp Roger, just north of Grand Rapids, Michigan. That same summer a good friend and fellow counselor for the past three summers, had been hired as the adventure director. We went into the summer with very different strategies. He went in looking to have fun with the the staff and through having fun with them and taking them on adventures he would build their abilities to have fun with kids and take them on adventures as well. My strategy was to tell them what to do and make sure it got done.

The tripping program was a success that summer in the sense that kids had fun, probably only a little less than the year before. Kids we safe, there were no accidents or runs to the emergency room. But as the story indicates, I spent the whole summer doing work that the counselors should have wanted to do. I was doing it because they were not even remotely interested in the camping that I had taught them. It was not fun or interesting. It was not a personal adventure. It was led, by me, as a "do it this way" and everything will work out fine. No one listened and I knew it.

That fall one of the most amazing moments of my career happened. I walked into class on the fourth or fifth day of the year and after a lecture I assigned the students to read a section of the textbook. I also gave them a worksheet to fill out to make sure the reading was done. The next day every student had completed the worksheet. Every single one of them. I was amazed. I was shocked . Why would they do that? I think looking back on it, I was a little sad that they had not rebelled against a silly assignment like that. I was amazed that they had not just copied all the blanks from a neighbor in study hall (some probably did). I was amazed at the power I had. I was more amazed later that week when I gave a test and many of the students got answers wrong that they had filled out on my worksheet just a few days before. The worksheet had been almost without value even though it was all completed.

A couple years later I read this poem by Robert Frost.

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

I read it in a book by Parker J Palmer. It changed my teaching forever. Palmer described a classroom that I wanted to be a part of. He described a classroom where I was not the holder of truth. He described a classroom where God wanted us to all dance in concert around a subject, each looking for a unique perspective every day and every time we looked. Each contributing to that conversation in our own way. From that moment on I decided that I needed to fill my room with learners. No teachers, no students, all learners. Palmer himself describes it on the introduction to his book To Know As We Are Known when he says, "But what scholars now say -- and what good teachers have always known -- is the real learning does not happen until students are brought into relationship with the teacher, with each other, and with the subject." (pg xvi)

Palmer goes on to explore why this must be. He starts with who we are, "The deepest wellspring of our desire to know is the passion to recreate the organic community in which the world was first created." (pg 8) We are God's creation, all of us connected to the creator by the love of this same creator. Since we are each connected in a different way, in a uniquely created way, to God's love, then we must all be learners together in this journey. But the journey to know is not enough. True learning becomes part of who you are, "A knowledge that springs from love may require us to change, even sacrifice, for the sake of what we know. It is easy to be curious and controlling. It is difficult to love." (pg 9) If the learners leave the classroom one day and we have not changed some piece of who we are, or at least moved in steps towards that, then I, as the person who sets up the context of that learning, have not succeeded. If the lesson did not have a chance of changing me, then I have not succeeded, because I was not a part of the learning. "Truthful knowing weds the knower and the known; even in separation, the two become part of each other's life and fate." (pg 31)

So how does this practically play itself out each day in my classroom? First, I try hard to ask questions that I want to know the answer to. Rarely silly questions that all have the same answer for every person. This lends a level of ambiguity to the class that not all teachers are comfortable with. You have to be willing to put 'play' on the lesson plan. You have to be willing to branch out away from your chosen topic for a while because the connections other learners will make are not known to you. I aspire to be Bill from Vivian Gussin Paley's Article in Harvard Educational Review titled On Listening to What Children Say. I want to bring, "paper bags full of show-and-tell, and he and the children the children talked about a wide range of ordinary phenomena." (pg 122)

I try hard to take all questions, comments and concerns at any point. It took me a while to get to this point. Learners learn from each other. If I am to be a learner I need to understand why others around me are not learning and what I can do to improve my role. This was hard to learn, because I like to be in charge. This is actually a flaw of many teachers. We are comfortable with the doors to our room shut not open. Someone reading this not from education will think of this as elitist or arrogant, but I think it stems from the fact that we are vulnerable on any given day to make very public mistakes and no one wants their mistakes public. Any way that you may perceive this, I look to my classes as sources of knowledge about how to view the world differently from my own way. This has made me a little more comfortable with getting comments that are different than my own.

I look at my students as coequal learners. I set us all up in a room full of stuff or ideas and we all dig in and try to make sense of it. The more likely someone is to come up with a different answer than what I thought might be the answer the more I like the lesson. Palmer says that we need to make our classroom hospitable where, "every stranger and every strange utterance is met with welcome." (Pg 74)

If I am not learning new content myself, I challenge myself to learn a new way of looking at the the content. Content is important. I need to bring the people in the room to a knowledge of the language and thinking of science to ask bigger and better questions. The hard part of doing this is not all learners need the same content. They all need different parts of the content that I would like to see them explore and work with. I think exploring new ways of learning and knowing shows the other learners that there are big questions to look at. It models the dance of learning that Frost talks about.

In the story I told at the beginning, Jame dug in and explored having fun with the counselors he was training. The world was a place to have fun in and play games and love each other in. I modeled a world that did not exist in the woods, and that was probably my biggest mistake. Camping never goes the way it is supposed to. Why would anyone teach it from the perspective that you will have fun if you follow these rules. Now I take my counselors in the woods every spring. We walk, canoe or backpack out and have a wonderful time. I ask them what they know, what they have experienced. I forget stuff and have to make do with what I have. I tell stories around the campfire. The first night they camp alone in the woods I walk up and hide behind trees and see what is happening. Sometimes I teach something, sometimes I smile and walk past. They are learning, and sometimes that needs support and sometimes it needs space. I like to think I do the same in my class. Giving students room to explore the new language I have shown them. Giving us all a space to play with the subject that God has put in our room to explore.

Pedagogical Autobiography

I am taking a course at Calvin College this semester. It is called Theories of Instruction, EDUC 520. For this class I need to write a Pedagogical Autobiography. As I understand it, pedagogy is why I do things the way I do, in the classrooms that I am given each day. Your pedagogy is autobiographical because at some level it completely reflects your understanding of what works.

That last phrase, "what works," requires a little flesh before I leave it. I think what works is defined in hundreds of different ways in classrooms and schools and districts worldwide. Part of what this class has helped me to discover is what I think about "what works". I think "what works" in my estimation is, setting up a room so that the highest number of students are willing and able to interact with the subject and ask everyone in the room about those interactions. In The Book of Learning and Forgetting Frank Smith puts it this way, "If the students are engaged in activities involving mathematics or science, or engineering, and they don't look bored or confused, we know they are learning about mathematics, science and engineering." (Pg 65) I have held that phrase in my head everyday since I read it. Few phrases so perfectly describe the criteria I have used over the years for throwing out plans and for keeping them. If you are one of my students or former students you can feel free to disagree, it would be really interesting if you did.

I have picked six things that define my classroom. Some of them define it more than others. I will tell a story about the practice or its origin and connect it to the reading I have done this semester. Along the way feel free to comment if you think it is different. Feel free to ask questions if I am not c lear. Feel free to comment back if your experience was different from how I portray it. Feel free to comment if you think I should have picked other, more defining, characteristics of my classroom.

Here are the six defining characteristics: Traditions, FruFra, Inquiry, Collaborative Problem Solving, Learners, Failure.

Maybe I should take one paragraph to explain why I am doing this in a public blog; especially one my students and colleagues might read. I asked to. I really struggled with the decision to go back to school to get my masters degree. It is not a convenient time to do this. Yet somehow it feels right. I would like to test my 10 years of learning, from a personal learning network, against traditional education. I would like to see what kind of impact I have in both places because of the work I do in both places. I am not sure why it did not strike me until the final paper that I should do all the course work in my blog, but now it seems obvious. Look for me to post all my work from the course here as time goes by, although the forum posting will not show up because it is integral to other people's work. I wonder why we keep this work behind the walls of a garden? I am going to try not to anymore.


I added links to the six parts and a conclusion that asks more questions.

Journal Of Awesome Things #234

Journal Of Awesome Things #234

November 25th, 2009 by Dan Meyer

#234: Generations of Edubloggers

This is my third year blogging about teaching. A profoundly cool byproduct of edublogging is that on occasion you get to be the dealer who hooks someone up with her first hit of online expression. Someone reads something you wrote and her response is visceral enough to overcome her online inhibition and comment. And she lives for awhile in various comment boxes around the blogosphere until those confines cramp her too much and she gets a Blogger or Wordpress blog of her own.

I haven't given enough thought to this but, among the blogs I read and wander past, there seems to be a generational effect at work and it freaks me out. I'm not presuming an exact genetic link, where I gave "birth" to blogs that came after mine. I'm referring to timing.

Chris Lehmann's Practical Theory, for instance, was the first edublog I read. His blog motivated me to turn a private blog public. Jackie Ballarini was one of my earliest commenters who eventually set out to do her own thing. A year after Jackie Ballarini you had Kate Nowak, one of Jackie's readers, now submitting fine work at f(t). A year after Kate Nowak you have Elissa Miller writing up the new teacher experience at Miss Calculate.

No doubt, all of our decisions to hang out our own shingles were motivated by more than just one graybeard blogger. I have no idea, for instance, where Ian Garrovillas, Sam Shah, and Sean Sweeney fit into in this timeline nor do I have any idea if Twitter accelerates or decelerates this process. But the general effect is clear: people take their education into their own hands which provokes other people later on to do the same thing.


I just sent this note to my favorite new math teacher.

I am not sure if you are a blog reader or even if you are aware of the power it can be for a teacher. Here is a blog post by my favorite math teacher blogger. He links in the post to several other math and just teacher blogs. If you do have a Google Reader, add them for a while and follow. If you do not, then google, "Google Reader" and find out how to keep track of things. Then later start your own blog. The comments are awesome too, click the link to see them.